To Stop the Coronavirus, Shin Bet Can Now Track Cellphones Without Court Order

The security service will use location data to send messages ordering self-quarantine to anyone who was in vicinity of an infected person in the 14 days prior to their diagnosis

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A man looks as his cellphone as a bus drives past in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020.
A man looks as his cellphone as a bus drives past in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The cabinet approved emergency regulations Sunday to allow the Shin Bet security service to track location data from the cellphones of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus and people who were in their vicinity in the 14 days before they were diagnosed.

Anyone who was in contact with the patient will receive a text message instructing them to self-quarantine.

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A senior Justice Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision – which was approved by the attorney general – permits the Shin Bet to track the movements of cellphone users without a court order.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Saturday that he planned to use this tactic to fight the spread of the virus. He said the government would use “digital methods employed in the battle against terrorism that I have so far refrained from using on the civilian population.”

“This isn’t simple,” he acknowledged. “It involves a certain amount of infringement on the privacy of these people, as we’ll check to see who they came into contact with once they fell sick and what preceded it and what came after it.”

Due to public criticism of the violation of privacy entailed by this unusual tactic, five ministers asked Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri Sunday to impose additional restrictions on the Shin Bet’s use of it. The five cabinet ministers who requested additional limitations were Gilad Erdan, Amir Ohana, Bezalel Smotrich, Zeev Elkin and Tzipi Hotovely.

Under these restrictions, the permit to monitor location data will remain in effect only during the coronavirus crisis, and all of the collected data will be deleted 30 days after the crisis ends. The Shin Bet will make no use of this data other than to track the spread of the virus, and it will be sent directly to the Health Ministry, which will send out the text messages. Violating these rules will be a criminal offense.

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